Sunday, December 31, 2006

slang, damn fool question, don't kick him

These may possibly come in useful. Two items of French slang for pubic hair: cresson, literally cress; and persil, literally parsley.

In today's paper, I read an account of a banquet at the Elysee Palace written by the BBC correspondent, Caroline Wyatt. At the reception line, she was welcomed first by Jaques Chirac, then by the Queen, who asked her what she did in Paris. "On being told", writes Wyatt, "the Queen replied: 'How fascinating!' So I asked her how she was enjoying her visit, only to receive a sharp rebuke from Prince Philip. 'Damn fool question,' he barked, as the Queen gave him a mildly reproachful look."

In Sainsbury's a small boy throws himself to the floor. "Don't kick him, " says his mother. "Just leave him there."

willowherbe 2

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

perspective, daffodil shoots, rain

This morning I think: the daily habit of looking out for positive, beautiful or amusing things, could be thought of as an escape from reality. But far from ignoring the ugly and the cruel, it puts them in their place.

In the Grove, daffodil shoots are begining to show. I see an iris in flower in a nearby garden.

Rain beats again the window pane this afternoon and buffets the bay tree outside. It's pleasant to read beside the window and listen to the rain.

Friday, December 29, 2006

getting on, sewed up, flower seeds

As we get older, from time to time one of us asks the other: "Are you all right?" Touching or pathetic?

In the tiny Retoucherie outlet in the London Road (it is a franchise chain, which makes alterations and repairs clothes), there is a sliding door, which opens into a minute cubicle. The other side of the cubicle has access from the workshop. While we are waiting for an on-the-spot repair, I see a woman disappear into the cubicle, and wonder aloud whether she is to be shortened or patched up. "Just a quick lippo-suction," says a voice from inside the cubicle.

Flower seeds continue to fascinate. The other day, I photograph a rosebay willowherb on the Common. It seems to have attained a magnificence in its last days, quite different from its youth but no less impressive, before dispersing its progeny.

rosebay willowherb

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

texting, crayons, starlings

Overcoming a reluctance to send text messages produces a frisson. "Textophobia conquered" is the headline. Both my children and their families, one lot in Dorset and one in the Pyrenees, had Christmas greetings in text and I received their replies. Now I mst learn 2 use the lingo.

Chunky crayons made of twigs in the window of the children's shop in the High Street catch my eye. I didn't like crayons when I was a child but love them now exorbitantly, particularly the sort which you can moisten, so that your marks become water colours, your drawings paintings.

At this time of year, starlings begin to gather in larger quantities in the Grove. Last year at the same time I began to note their presence, and this year find myself doing the same thing. A Christmas book called Garden Bird Songs and Calls, which includes a CD, allows me to listen to the song at home, and the written description nicely captures the sound in words : "Generally beginning with a medley of mimicry, with possibly a few 'signature' whistles as a prelude, the pace builds into passages of rapid bill-clicking, repeated shrill whistles and throaty wheezes".

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

few people, exoplanets, weimaraner

There are few people in Sainsbury's today and how pleasing it is. Few is beautiful.

Exoplanets are planets, which belong to solar systems other than our own, and which might consist of rock and even water. Apparently a satellite mission is just now being launched to study them. It is a pleasure to read such stories in the newspaper.

In the Grove we meet an elegant German hunting dog called a weimaraner. It introduces us to its owner. Apparently it has been descibed as "the dog with the human brain".

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

happiness, topinabour, Pam Ayres

On Christmas morning I hear a discussion programme on the subject of happiness. One of those present quotes some familiar words - "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.." She didn't acknowldege the source but they come from Eliot's Four Quartets, and without fail they instill in me a sense of deep calm.

I come across, in a French book on vegetables, a reference to le topinambour. The article begins: "It is only for us septuagenerians that a too often eaten "legume de guerre" can still be of interest today". I am not sure of the truth of that statement. Jerusalem artichokes make a fine soup and can be roasted or boiled and served wrapped in bacon to good effect, war time food or not. But I do know that French chefs are not fond of this relative of the sunflower. A once famous French chef, once bet me £25 that the word topinabour referred to the globe artichcoke. I took him on, and he had the good grace to ring me up the next day to confirm that I was right, but the bad grace not to mention the bet.

Listening to the voice of Pam Ayres, with its amused and michievous rustic swing, on a CD. She intoduces her poems with anecdotes, which add to their wit when she comes to recite them. Even though I have heard them all before - the account of having a wisdom tooth extracted is but one which comes to mind - the poems make me laugh out loud even when I think about them. During her recitations,there is something about the way she looks for the right word, finds it and then relishes it, as though it is some special item of food, which seems close to genius.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

word needed, persiflage, recipe-talk

A word is needed to describe what happens when you bump into a word by chance in a dictionary. It could be a word you know or one who don't. What counts is that it catches your eye as you turn the pages in pursuit oif something else. Serendipity would do, but it is refers to any chance discovery.

I have always had a weakness for persiflage, which I tripped over in the dictionary last night. It comes from the French word, which is spelt the same way, means the same thing and is pronounced as though it were French. It means to banter and talk in a frivolous manner -something, which I am fond of doing, especially if I can find another persifleur to persiflate with. Both derivatives are in the Oxford English Dictionary, incidently. According to my Oxford English Dictionary, (complete in one volume and requiring a magnifying glass to read and a forklift truck to carry), Thomas Carlyle wrote of Voltaire "... there never was such a persifleur, " which is good enough for me.

Talking recipes with people who like cooking. Jenny, who is staying over Christmas, is an enthusiastic cook, and knows how to feret out the best things from parisien markets. Her French mother-in-law, to whom she refers often, is a most accomplished cook, and you can pick up intriguing kitchen smells from this conversation. "She always stirs an egg yolk into her polenta before serving," she says. Technical stuff.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Shakespeare, water-seller, truffle

A column in today's paper by the novelist, Howard Jacobson, approves recent scientific research, which demonstrates that reading Shakespeare is beneficial to the brain. ..."His syntactical surprisingness. .. creates something like a neural flash of lightening, a positive wave or surge in the brain's activity, triggering a re-evaluation process likely to raise attention" at the time and stimulate new pathways for the brain thereafter". In other words as the American poet Emily Dickinson said of poetry: "it makes the back of your neck tingle."

At the Velesquez exhbition at the National Gallery I see that, in the glass held out for water seller in the Water Seller of Seville, there sits a fresh fig to sweeten the water. Does one ever learn to look at a picture properly? I've know that one for years, with the huge earthernware jug in the foreground and the lined, dignified face of the water seller central to the composition, but never before have I noticed the fig.

A black Perigord truffle arrives for Christmas; what a present! How to use it? after some discussion, we take Elizabeth David's advice and make omelates from the finely sliced tuber, which is allowed to impregnate the eggs for a time before beating them and cooking the omelates. We eventually cover the bowl in which the eggs and the truffle wait, but in the interval, the mysterious fungus smell takes over the kitchen.

Friday, December 22, 2006

fruit, manequin,waving

A section in Sainsbury supermarket is devoted to "snacking fruit".

In the window of a men's clothing shop, there is a manequin with a shiny, opaque, completely featureless face. It is wearing a dinner jacket. Its black tie dangles over its open shirt front. Blotto, I think.

A car emerges from a side road, the sun behind it. The driver waves. Is he waving to me? The other day in a queue at the WI market, a small boy greeted me and I responded to find that he was talking to his grandmother, behind me in the queue. I wave back ambiguously in case there is someone else in sight and, as he turns, just recognise the driver in time to realize that this time I have not made a fool of myself.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

hot stuff, space, tidings

A book arrives, which is to be a Christmas present for an expected visitor. It is Fuschia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I like everything about this book including the author's name. The introduction begins promisingly by quoting Chairman Mao, who said that you can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chillies.

In Sainsbury's busy car park this morning a young employee is carrying a circular board on the head of a pole. As soon as he detects that someone is leaving, he stands beside the car which is about to emerge and hoists the board vertically. It bears the solitary word "Space". He then uses the board to usher in the next car, rather like airport workers do when guiding airlines to a parking position.

There have been lots of magpies around this year. The other day I counted six on a rooftop. What I didn't know, at the time, was that there is a collective noun for magpies. It is "tiding", a seasonal word too.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

rime, squirrels, new book

Hoar frost on the branches of the lime. It begins to melt and, in the early sunlight, you can see drops of water collecting in transparent beads on the end of twigs.

The Grove is full of squirrels. They stand upright, holding a nut between their forepaws which they turn round rapidly as they gnaw it. All the time their jaws are moving, as they earnestly chew. Seen from a distance, with their forepaws together, they could be praying.

It's hard to finish a novel which has entranced you for some time. Nana by Emile Zola was always hard to put down. Starting a new one is hard until you have reached the point when it begins to intrigue you. The new one is Le Soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé, I'm just beginning to miss the parched, barren hills of southern Italy where it is set, and the sullen peasants, who live there at the end of the 19th century. But what will happen to the bandit, who returns to a village after 14 years in prison, to sleep with the woman who has been on his mind since his arrest, knowing that the villagers will almost certainly kill him for his trouble?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

mist and fog, visitors, shadows

A misty morning makes me think of the difference between mist and fog. The weather forecast on Radio 4 this morning speaks of "mist and fog". Mist is beautiful. It reduces definitions but does not obscure them. It suggests mystery and contains a light of its own. Fog, as in the second paragraph of Dickens' Bleak House, is disgusting, opaque and penetrating. "The yellow fog that rubs it back upon the window panes... licked its tongue into the corners of the evening," wrote T S Eliot, describing the same thing. With our Clean Air Act, that sort of fog seems to be a thing of the past. And you have to exclude the "fog", as Californians call it, which comes in from the sea in San Francisco, and which is white and reaches out in long, thin clouds, and is nothing like the old fogs of industrial cities like London; more like mist.

It's pleasing to think of the groups of people from different continents which write and visit blogs and comment on them, part of a global village.

As I pass the empty basement of a house into which the sun is shining, shadows of passers-by, myself included, move along the white wall above the empty floorboards.

Monday, December 18, 2006

mouse, punch bag,father Christmas

A mouse scurries out of the alley beside the Grove Tavern and crosses the road in front of me. It's a long time since I've seen a mouse on the loose. How small it is and how fast it runs!

There is a house looking over the Grove where an enormous teddy bear, the size of a large man, looks down from one of the first floor windows. In the afternoon the sun shines into the windows revealing the interior of the rooms. In the room next to the bear's window I can see a full sized punch bag.

Just under the window of a house, which I pass every day, I spot a stuffed Father Christmas hanging on to a rope like a cat burglar.

Seed head 2

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dove. surprise drinks, robin

In the High Street a white dove alights in a patch of sunshine.

As we pass a friends house, we are invited to join them for a glass of bubbly.

On a doorstep sits a robin coy as a Christmas card.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

blue and red, surprise, poetry

Pomagranite seeds mixed with blue berries taste as good as they look.

The opposite of a bill is a refund. It comes from Southern Water, which usually sends a bill at this time of year. It's the result of having a water meter fitted in May.

I am approached by a teenage girl at Book Fair in the Pantiles:
T G You must like poetry.
Me Why is that so?
T G Because you're wearing a beret.
Me I don't see the connection.
T G Leonard Cohen wears a beret.

Friday, December 15, 2006

windy days, meerkats, telephone tangle

Windy days, when leaves fly, branches swing, people put their heads down.

I like meerkats because of the way they stand up to see what's going on. They gather intelligence like you and me.

A telephone engineer kneels beside one of those pavement-side boxes packed with skeins and skeins of wires, each representing somebody's landline - the tangles of people's lives. He talks earnestly to one line, to which his handset is attached.

seed head 1

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Clematis seed, ghost story, unexpected cards

A single seed-head of clematis makes a startling photograph with the help of some fine tuning; the white fronds, tinged with yellow, which are attached to the cluster of seeds in the centre, look like a wild head of hair.

A friend who moved to Bury St Edmunds includes a ghost story in her letter. "Recently, a local dress shop was exorcised because the proprietor heard strange things in her basement, and the dog refused to go down there, his fur all standing en brosse. I'm told I have a secret passage, and I have heard conversations in the night - maybe a frustrated monk seeking a glass of mead, is buried in the foundations". The story is sharpened by an invation to stay.

Every year there is a surprise among the Christmas cards; somebody you didn't expect to hear from reminds you of old times. Usually the surprise is a pleasant one.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

leaf scoops, dancing washing, lamp and leaves

In the Grove, the gardeners, have blown the dead leaves into heaps with their mechanical blowers. Now, helped by plastic scoops, which they grasp one in each hand so that they behave like pairs of giant forceps, they load them into the back of a truck.

Washing dances on a line in the wind - a pair of frolicking trousers and shirts waving their arms.

The only leaves left on a plain tree are those surrounding a street lamp which its branches have grown around. They hang round the orange lamp like a green halo. Is it the light from the lamp or its heat, or both, which as kept the leaves in place?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Looking again, passion fruit, micro-kite

Heidi and I look more closely at the bicycle rack, in the form of two minimalist bicycle sculptures, outside Tunbridge Wells town hall, which I spotted a few weeks ago. How did it get there and why is it there? An inscription on the saddle of one of the bikes gives the answer. It reads: "A gift from our twin town Wiesbaden to mark the 400th anniversary of Royal Tunbridge Wells in 2006." Heidi says that she remembers, as a child, visiting Wiesbaden to see her grandmother who lived there.

Passion fruit is much better than it looks and quite as good as it sounds. If the brown skin is smooth it is not ripe; it's best to wait until it becomes wrinkled and even less appetising in appearance. I have been scooping out the edible seeds in their yellowy-green jelly-like coating and using their sweet-and-sour aromatic flavour, to add zest to the rest of our breakfast fruit.

In Calverley Place a young man is flying a two-tailed kite the size of a christmas card. He is sellign them at £3 a piece, and manages to take the money and dispense the packed kites while keeping his sample aloft.

Monday, December 11, 2006

tangerine sky, stamps, Christmas star

The phrase "tangerine sky" - it sounds as though it might be a Beatles song - comes to me as I try to find words to describe the sky behind the tulip tree where the sun is rising. It's not quite right, "but tangerine" is a lovely word, and the smell of the fruit is magic. Just now, the supermarkets are selling tangerines (or clementines, satsumas, or mandarines - I like to think of them all as tangerines), with their leaves attached. The dark green leaves beside the bright fruit is worth the extra cost. ".Andrew Marvell's "..He hangs the orange in the trees like golden lamps in a green night..." comes to mind.

I find a stamp collectors' shop which sells stamps for current use through the royal mail. It feels strange going into this little shop full of penny blacks, penny reds, one-cent-black-on-magentas and the like, and being at a loss to say that what I want, what I really, really want is stamps for my Christmas cards.

Over the Common I spot a bright star in the twilight. It seems to be stationary and then moves slowly in an eastery direction. Not a wise man in sight though.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

last pages, sinister cereals, delay

I reach the last pages of my note book. In one, raindrops have created a mirror image of an already illegible entry. It appears suitably worn and worked over. Looking back, I see that early pages cover last April's Munich trip and include a drawing of an old man in a heavy overcoat and black, broad-brimmed hat sitting in a patch of sunlight outside a cafe in M√ľnchener Freiheit. There are drawings of various dogs, including a labrador called Carlos, and a rabbit, a lion and a dragonfly. I shall be sorry to set it aside.

In the "well being aisle" of Sainsbury supermarket, is a section entitled "free from foods". Further on is section displaying "adult cereals".

The other day I finished printing and folding this year's Christmas cards, thirty-two in all, with a smug smile ( a complex piece of work requiring some dodgey positioning of areas of type in relation to the picture) when, I spotted that I had mis-spelled "Christmas". Today I redo the card with improvements, and can't help feeling that it is a beautiful thing to be back where I started.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Changing platforms, balloon, whale cloud

At Tunbridge Wells railway station, the London train is due on platform 1 at almost the same time as the Hastings train going in the opposite direction is due on platform 2. A loudspeaker annoucement tells us that the London train will now be on platform 2 and the Hastings train on platform 1. There is a rush for the bridge, and a breathless realignement of passengers. Heidi remarks that it could part of a new government policy to get an obese public to take some exercise. A man eating a sandwich says: "I like that one. That's a good idea!"

In Covent Garden this saturday afternoon, people wander in and out of the shops, stroll to and fro, watch each other; a group of buskers perform "it's a wonderful life". A lone balloon flies high overhead, powered by the wind, in an easterly direction.

A tall, purple cloud in the western sky looks like a diving whale, the end of its broad tail upwards, its body diving into the urban skyline, where the sun is setting.

Friday, December 08, 2006

wine, efficiency, abacus

"...And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine
'I don't care where the water goes if it doesn't get into the wine...'"
That's G. K Chesterton. The recent wet weather must have put in to my head.

This morning, in my favourite cafe, a little pot of tea, (tea-bag plus boiling water from water boiler), mug and milk jug appear on a tray on the counter within 30 seconds of my request. My cheese and pickle sandwich appears within another 30 seconds (it is home-made with fresh bread, but pre-wrapped for convenience). It is always like that - a carefully thought out system, which works. That is one reason why it is my favourite cafe.

On the bars of the black wrought-iron gate into the Grove, raindrops hang like the counting beads on an abacus

Thursday, December 07, 2006

tertulia, flickering, energy

Tertulia is a particulalry Spanish word for a particularly Spanish concept. It describes an informal group or gathering which gets together regularly- usually in cafes - to talk about matters of common interest. I don't know how much the tertulia is still a feature of Spanish life. It certainly was in the mid-Nineteenth Century, when the novel Fortunata and Jacinta by Perez Galdos, which I am reading at the moment, is set. It is a civilized institution, and I love the thought of it, but reticence and a degree of self-consciousness, make it hard for us to fit something like it into our English culture. On the other hand, what else is a blogging cummunity than a tertulia? So perhaps there's hope.

The sun, low in the sky, feeds its light through the leaves of the bay tree, which dance in the blustery wind, outside my window. The light flickers on the books, opposite the window, so that it looks like candlelight.

I love the mad energy of the wind as it whips the bare branches of the lime tree to and fro.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Blackbirds and berries, silly, beret

As I pass a rowan tree, two blackbirds (a male and a female) are feasting on the berries. Profiled against the bright sky, they peck and swallow the orange berries, their greedy beaks working all the time.

In the Grove an elderly woman ticks off her over-active black and white mongrel. It has picked up an unsavoury piece of paper, which it won't let go of. "You are a silly", she says.

A man, who I have never seen before, greets me in the street."Bonjour," he says." That's a good idea! I've got a large collection of hats but not one of those". I don't know what he is talking about, until I realize that I am wearing a beret basque. I hurry on so as not to miss my place in the queue in the post office, but I do have time to note that the man with many hats is, on this occasion, hatless.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

ghost lake, distant view, granite in kitchen

The park in Tunbridge Wells called Calverley Grounds consists of a u-shaped dip or small valley with steepish slopes, where paths, flowerbeds and shrubberies following the rising contours. It is not surprising to learn that the park used, in former times, to contain an ornamental lake. After the heavy rain, a large spreading puddle in the grass, recalls how the park must once have been; on this rather murky day the lake and the past seem to be reasserting themselves.

From a high point in Tunbridge Wells, I watch a wild, soapy sky that would have appealed to Turner. Grey, silver-edged clouds ride against a lemony sky, while sunbeams descend on the distant heathland of Ashdown Forest; in the folds of the heath hangs a misty glow.

A square of black polished granite today takes its place set into the white work-surface of the kitchen. There, in an absent minded a moment, a few months ago, I burnt a hole with a too hot saucepan. Function and appearance have met in the replacement. Something better and more functional has come from a mistake.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sleep, Christmas tree, change

Sometimes when I can't get to sleep I imagine what it would be like to be a stand-up comedian having to appear before an indifferent audience without any preparation. Strange to report, trying to think up what to say and how to say it, sends me quickly off to sleep.

In Trafalgar Square they are putting up the traditional Christmas tree, which is a present to the people of London from the people of Norway. Later it stands alone as yet without lights looking rather noble in the dark.

Going back to a restaurant which I haven't visited for some time, and noting that nothing has changed- not the menu, not the cooking, not the service. The only thing that is different is the clientel. They are the same sort of people, but myself included, are older. They are no longer there to see who is there; and for the most don't care, as long as they are.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

halo, wellbeing, I didn't get you

I wake to a dark, wet and windy morning. I sit up in bed with my cup of tea, and look out through the raindrops, which have been clattering against the window pane, and now cling there. Not all the drops are visible; only those lit by the street lamp which, at 7.30pm, is still on. The illuminated drops form a halo round the lamp, the others fade.

In the supermarket, among aisles labeled fresh meat, canned vegetables, cheese, biscuits, and the like, is one called wellbeing.

Outside a pub a woman shouts into a mobile phone: "I did ring you, but I didn't get you". Will someone set that to music.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

To market, to market, sirens, flash mob

The Pantiles, where the Spa of Tunbridge Wells started, has never looked better. It now has its own Farmers Market, and new stalls with striped canvas awnings have been provided. The two walk-ways of which it consists usually suffer from being a "tourist attraction". Now it has a real function, and the people who go there have something purposeful to do, and look all the more interesting for it.

The sound of police car and fire engine sirens still have a special thrill for me, especially when, this afternoon, I watch them, one after the other, negotiate the busy Saturday traffic, ignore the lights and pass on the wrong side of traffic islands. The freedom to break rules is always exciting even if you are not breaking them yourself.

I read about a flash mob party in Paddington station London, where at 7.18pm precisely, 3, 500 people, forewarned by email, start dancing simultaneously to the sound of their MP 3 players.

Friday, December 01, 2006


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Russian greeting, puddle mirrors, cd storage

As I enter Waterestones bookshop in Charing Cross, I am addressed by someone in Russian. I don't know the person any more than I know Russian (it sounds like Russian). I look elsewhere and wander away from him. He goes off in the opposite direction, still talking. There is no mobile phone in evidence. Perhaps he is talking to himself.

I have always liked puddles. When I was three years old, I used to like splashing through them. Now I like to see the sky and neigbouring structures reflected in them.

A big album arrives with loose leaves each of which can store four cds. You slip the cds into transparent envelopes and the sleeves into similar envelopes, and throw away the plastic cases. The space saving is gratifying.